Thursday, February 6, 2014

Review: Burial Rites

The Vitals

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
Release Date: September 10, 2013
Page Count: 322
Genre: Historical Fiction
Target Audience: Adult
Series: No
Source and Format: Library; Audiobook

Summary (From Goodreads)
A brilliant literary debut, inspired by a true story: the final days of a young woman accused of murder in Iceland in 1829.

Set against Iceland's stark landscape, Hannah Kent brings to vivid life the story of Agnes, who, charged with the brutal murder of her former master, is sent to an isolated farm to await execution.

Horrified at the prospect of housing a convicted murderer, the family at first avoids Agnes. Only Tóti, a priest Agnes has mysteriously chosen to be her spiritual guardian, seeks to understand her. But as Agnes's death looms, the farmer's wife and their daughters learn there is another side to the sensational story they've heard.

Riveting and rich with lyricism, Burial Rites evokes a dramatic existence in a distant time and place, and asks the question, how can one woman hope to endure when her life depends upon the stories told by others?

Notes on Burial Rites
I think it's safe to say that Burial Rites has ruined me for all other books. I have never read anything like it, and I mean that in a very, very good way. This is the type of story that sticks to your bones and won't go away. I find myself thinking about the characters and their situations all the time; even now, weeks after finishing. Burial Rites will leave you ruminating long after you turn the final page, and for that I truly, truly loved this book. 

At the center of Burial Rites is the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, an Icelandic housemaid who is charged with the murder of two men, one of whom was her former master, Natan Ketilsson. Due to Iceland's lack of prison space to house criminals, she is sent to live on a farm in isolated Kornsá with a district officer and his family to await her execution. The story of Agnes is told through multiple perspectives, including the farmer and his wife, Margrét, their daughters Steina and Lauga, and Agnes' spiritual advisor, Tóti  This book is not a murder mystery preoccupied with proving Agnes' guilt or innocence, it is simply the story of Agnes as she lives out the final months of her life. And it is so hauntingly beautiful. 

There are a few things you should know about Burial Rites before you make the decision to pick it up (and you should definitely pick it up, no matter!). First, this is not a happy story. Kent does not deign to sugarcoat what life was like for Agnes before she came to live with the district officer and his family. She lived in horrifying conditions, sitting for long periods of time in a vat of her own waste, covered by lice, deprived of light and any human contact. Kent describes each of these things in vivid detail, to the point where you can almost smell the sourness and feel your throat ache from thirst. Once Agnes arrives on the farm, she is faced with an excruciatingly long wait and plenty of time to think about her ultimate fate. On top of Agnes' situation as a convicted murderer, life in general was difficult for anyone living in rural 19th century Iceland, and this book does not try to paint a rosy picture of it. Not to say the entire book is bleak and depressing, but if you are looking for a feel-good book, this is not it. 

The second thing you should know (as mentioned above) is that this book is told from multiple points of view. I know multiple perspectives is a turn off for some people, but for me, I was glad to experience Agnes' story through those that were nearest to her in the last months of her life. Though we do not get to know the secondary characters the way we get to know Agnes, some of them still experience significant character growth that we wouldn't necessarily know about if the story were told only through Agnes' limited first person perspective. We get to see Tóti's struggle as a young priest trying to find his place among the clergymen, expected to deal with Agnes harshly in order to rouse her repentance, but instead chooses to understand her on a more personal level and encourages her to think about spiritual things through heartfelt conversation. We get to see the journey of Margrét as she slowly realizes her preconceived notions about Agnes could have been misguided. The first encounter between Agnes and Margrét might be my absolute favorite scene of the entire novel. I grew to really admire Margrét's determination and fierce protection of the ones she loved.   

Third, Burial Rites wrestles with some really tough questions. What defines you as a person? Your actions? What other people say about you? What you say about yourself? Is every person worth knowing, even a murderer no longer deemed worthy to live? (The answer to that last question is an absolute YES, but how often do I truly live that belief out in my own life?). This entire book reminded me of an article I recently read by Jen Hatmaker where she explores "The Mythical 'They'" and how our preconceived notions keep us from seeing and getting to know people as individuals. Basically, this book will have your brain turning things over and over as you contemplate the many issues it explores. And it's one of the things I really loved about it.

Before I wrap this up, I have to say a few things about the audiobook. IT WAS EXCELLENT! I highly recommend listening to the audiobook for your first read, or if you've already read a physical copy, the audio would be the perfect way to reread. This book was meant to be heard out loud. Morven Christie, the narrator, is right on with her Icelandic pronunciations and her ability to maintain unique voice for each of the characters. You could feel the desperation, the loneliness, the foreboding. I can't recommend the audiobook enough!

All in all, I am so glad I read Burial Rites. I learned so many things from this story, not just about a real person who lived in 19th century Iceland, but about myself as well. This book was raw and real and forced me to wrestle with some tough questions. The writing was incredibly gorgeous, and it was a debut! I can't wait to read more from Hannah Kent, and in the meantime, I beg you to add this book to your to-read pile. You will certainly not regret it.

Chief Complaint
I think a lot of people will find the flashbacks to Agnes' past a little jarring. I'm sure it's hard to follow when reading the physical copy, but it was especially hard to follow while listening to the audiobook. There were times when I wasn't sure if we were in the present or hearing about something that happened in the past. Also, I found the conclusion to be somewhat unsatisfying, but overall neither of these things really detracted from my enjoyment of the book. 

Memorable Quotes
“It’s not fair. People claim to know you through the things you’ve done, and not by sitting down and listening to you speak for yourself.”

"If I speak, it will be bubbles of air. They will not be able to keep my words for themselves. They will see the whore, the madwoman, the murderess, the female dripping blood into the grass and laughing with her mouth choked with dirt. They will say 'Agnes' and see the spider, the witch caught in the webbing of her own fateful weaving. They might see the lamb circled by ravens, bleating for a lost mother. But they will not see me. I will not be there."

Overall Diagnosis

Get A Second Opinion
  • Renae at Respiring Thoughts - "Burial Rites could have been excellent, but it was lacking. With a bit of structural rearrangement, and a bigger emphasis on the unique setting, I think I would have liked it better."
  • Hannah at So Obsessed With - "[Burial Rites] is stunning, moving, and without a doubt, one of the best things I've read in a long time. It deserves all the praise it's been getting and more."


  1. I would leave a mind blowing comment but I just don't have one except: "I'M SO GLAD YOU READ THIS BOOK!!!" I have many feels about wishing I was higher up on the wait list at my library for the audio book.

  2. YAYYYYYY! I knew you'd loved it from talking about it with you, but I just adored reading your review for this one. You expressed yourself so well - and I think you highlighted some of my favorite things about this book. AH. Now I want to go re-read it!